I grew up in the mid to late 90s watching the original The Wonder Years. Watching six seasons of that show taught me all about them growing up. I still had to do. I never saw myself in Kevin Arnold. In 2021, The Wonder Years has been reimagined, this time focusing on a black family in 1968. This reimagining is the first time I have felt seen in 25 years. It has nothing to do with the fact that the show focuses on an African American family. How that family’s story is told is the reason why I praise it so highly.
The premise is pretty simple. Dean Williams (Elisha “EJ” Williams) just turned 12 years old, and he is experiencing a desegregated school for the first time. His father, Bill (Dulé Hill), is a music professor, and his mother, Lillian (Saycon Sengbloh), coaches or helps coach the school baseball team. Dean has had a crush on his female best friend Keisa Clemmons (Milan Ray) for many years and is struggling to tell her how he feels. Dean decides that to fit in at school, he’s going to try to bring harmony to all the races. Obviously, that plan doesn’t go too well. His attempt at unification results in him being beaten up. Dean eventually tries to get his coach to let the African-American team play against the Caucasian team and only gets his way when he explains that he always feels different but feels like he’s part of something when he’s with his friends regardless of their race.
The main thing that I was worried about with the pilot of this show was the tone. The tone of the original The Wonder Years was light but also deeply serious. I was concerned that the show would not be able to balance between the two as successfully as the original. Ironically, what I like most is that, at least initially, the show plays things safe. I like it when a show doesn’t go controversial too early. Dean is a likable geek. I wanted him to succeed at both building a bridge with his Caucasian classmates and talking to Kiesa. I enjoyed that he only succeeded at one of those tasks as it gives him something to work toward in future episodes of the show.
Don Cheadle did a fine job at being the narrator for the adult version of Dean. While the narration was constant in the original series, the difference with this version is that the writers rarely gave the episode a moment to breathe so the narrative could hold on to adult Dean’s thoughts on his past. Because the narration occurred so often without letting the story breathe, the pacing was rushed. I don’t know how to feel about Bill and Lillian. The duo reminded me of pieces of my upbringing, including the idea of staying out of grown folks’ business.
EJ Williams, for me, proved this show is going to be a hit based on three lines of dialogue from the pilot. “I feel different everywhere I go. No matter who I’m around and I’ll always be different. But when I’m with Cory and Brad, and we all feel different, I finally feel the same as everybody else. That’s why I want to play.” To me, this is the most honest moment about feeling out of place in the world that doesn’t accept you that I’ve seen in a while. No caucasian characters had to say anything for Dean to feel this high level of isolation. He just had to feel deeply “other,” and the fact that the writer is willing to do that subtly allows me to believe this show can go far.
Tragedy does occur in more than one form in the final minutes of the episode. The show handles both moments with care, and I know it will inform how Dean navigates and sees the world around him. More importantly, The Wonder Years showcases that we are continually growing. In a time filled with so much distrust and uncertainty about where life will take us, this trip back in time feels like a more potent metaphor for 2021 than anything I have seen this year. We all are filled with wonder throughout this life. It’s how we find ourselves that matters. This is what growing up is all about.